The roles on the Chinese opera stage
Role of Sheng
The roles on the Chinese opera stage fall into four categories -- Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. These roles have the natural features of age and sex, as well as social status, and are artificially exaggerated by makeup, costume and gestures.
Sheng, a male role, usually a leading one, dates back to Southern Drama of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368). This role appears in operas in all historical periods. According to the age and social status of the characters, Sheng falls into five sub-groups: Laosheng, Xiaosheng, Wusheng, Hongsheng and Wawasheng (characters of children).
Laosheng is also known as Xusheng, meaning bearded men, because the actors wear artificial beards, and they are middle-aged or elderly men. Most are upright and resolute characters. They sing in their natural voices, and their actions are serious ones.
Xiaosheng is a sub-category of Sheng representing young male characters. They don"t wear artificial beards. They always sing in their real voices, while in Kunqu and Pihuang operas the singing mixes natural and falsetto voices.
Wusheng stands for all of the male characters who appear in battle scenes. They are further subdivided into Changkao Wuheng, Duanda Wusheng, Goulian Wusheng and Houxi Wusheng. They always wear helmets and thick-soled boots. The generals always carry long pikes. Wusheng roles call for sturdy and vigorous actions, with resounding declamations. The movements of the waist and legs are powerful, and a high level of martial arts skills is demanded in these roles. Duanda Wusheng roles use short-handled weapons, and their movements are light and swift.
Role of Dan in Peking Opera
Dan is the general term in Peking Opera for female roles. As early as in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Zhuangdan role appeared. Southern Drama and Northern Zaju, which developed during the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368), also had Dan roles. After Kunqu matured, it had Zhengdan, Xiaodan, Tidan and Laodan. Later, more Dan types were developed. Nowadays, the Dan roles are subdivided into Zhengdan (or Qingyi), Huadan, Wudan, Laodan and Caidan, in accordance with age, characteristics and social positions of the roles.
Zhengdan role was the main Dan role in the Northern Zaju. Zhengdan refers to young or middle-aged women with gentle and refined dispositions. Most of Zhengdan "s lines are delivered in song, and even the spoken parts are recited in rhythmic style. Always dressed in a blue gown, Zhengdan is also called Qingyi (blue clothes).
Huadan is a role for a vivacious maiden, a young woman with a frank and open personality, or a woman of questionable character.
Wudan refers to female characters skilled in the martial arts and can be subdivided into Daomadan and Wudan, according to the social positions and skills represented. Daomadan is good at using pikes and spears, and at riding horses. Wudan always wears short robes and the role emphasizes acrobatics. Wudan plays gods and ghosts and has excellent fighting skills.
Laodan usually represents aged women. He/She sings in their natural voices, in a style similar to that of Laosheng but in milder tones. In some types of opera, Laodan is called Fudan or Bodan.
Caidan, also called Choudan, represents clownish and cunning females. The performance of this part calls for exuberance.